|for a glimpse into an unspectacular coming-of-age story of one of the world's most spectacular story-tellers
|Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Chandler Lovelle, Chloe East, David Lynch, Greg Grunberg, Isabelle Kusman, Jeannie Berlin, Judd Hirsch, Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten, Mateo Zoryan, Oakes Fegley, Robin Bartlett, Sam Rechner, Seth Rogen, Sophia Kopera
|27th January 2023
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
After being taken to see an action film at the cinema at a young age, Sammy (Mateo Zoryan) keeps smashing up his toys, the way he saw things smashed up on the big screen.
His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) lets him borrow the family cine camera to film one train crash so that he can watch it over and over again and doesn’t have to keep smashing up more toys.
Enamoured by being able to create and control his own version of reality, Sammy enrols his friends in making bigger and bolder productions.
By the time Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) reaches his teens, his father Burt (Paul Dano) uproots the family from Arizona to California, for his job – but also to get Mitzi away from the family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), with whom she’s secretly been in love.
Sammy finds it hard to settle into his new school, where he faces anti-semitic bullying, but it’s – once again – his love of film-making that helps him rise to the top of the pack – and put the bullies in their place.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
Steven Spielberg is generally accepted as one of film’s greatest ever storytellers – and not without good reason. From Jaws and ET to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Saving Private Ryan and beyond – his his CV reads like a history of cinema.
After more than 40 years at the top of his profession, he finally feels able to tell his own story. As a teenager, he had to deal with anti-semitic bullying at school and marital break-up in the home – there’s no doubt that such trauma would leave an impression on any youngster that could emerge later in life – especially a youngster who will make a living from telling stories.
But hang on – Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Lincoln – these aren’t films in which his own experiences spill onto the screen.
There are details, moments in the tale of his family’s alter egos, The Fabelmans, which will ring bells of acknowledgement – they have a pet monkey like the date-eating capuchin in Raiders and when you see a group of teenagers riding bicycles, you half expect them to take off, like in ET.
But it’s not like his childhood experiences have formed the basis of the career that followed. Some elements of his story, character and skills do emerge through his early film-making; he discovers his mother’s love for Bennie in the background of a film he’s taken of a family outing – and edits it out of the film film so as not to embarrass her, he edits a film of a school-trip to the beach to make one of his bullies appear like a hero, because that made for a better film – he learned, at a young age, how to put the best possible version of life up on the big screen and keep the harder things to himself.
The film is perfectly watchable but nothing spectacular or even unusual happens – we’ve seen families uprooted, relationships breaking up, teenagers having trouble with bullies or getting to grips with difficult first relationships – this is the stuff coming-of-age films are made of and the story told here isn’t particularly notable for any reason other than the fact that Sammy Fabelman represents Spielberg himself. If any other director made the same film, it would most likely have been overlooked with a polite shrug.
As the hapless father, Paul Dano elicits sympathy but doesn’t seem to do much to earn our respect. Michelle Williams, as the whimsical, if unstable, mother, is not the kind of role-model 1950s middle-America would have been trying to promote. And when you realise the truth behind Bennie’s kookiness, it’s quite creepy.
It’s clearly a very personal film – important to him – but is it something we need to see? It feels oddly slight and underwhelming, coming from a master of his craft. You’re half expecting young Sammy to find an alien in the garden shed, stumble across the Ark of the Covenant on a family holiday to Egypt or accidentally bring a dinosaur to life during a school experiment.
It’s only really in the final scene, where he first sets foot on a film lot, that you feel the story you’ve been waiting for is about to start – and in one explosive fizz of cinematic delight, the story starts and ends. He doesn’t need to say anymore, because we know what happened next. The question is whether we needed to know what happened first.
Spielberg has told some of the greatest stories in the history of cinema – but this isn’t one of them. It’s almost as if he’s run out of stories to tell. This was clearly a cathartic experience for him, but not a particularly rewarding one for us and it doesn’t particularly add to our understanding of what makes him the artist he is.
Like the recent Empire of Light and Babylon – which, in their own ways, were love-letters to cinema – here we go again – we get it – film-makers love film – they’ve always loved film – that’s why they’re film-makers. But our central character appears – for most of the film – to be someone for whom film-making is a hobby, rather than a calling.
You don’t feel any of the magic of the cinema he would go on to create. He doesn’t seem to be passionate about cinema, its history and its impact on the world. He’s just happy shooting and editing home videos, almost oblivious to the wonders going on at his local cinema.